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Aviation Learning Center Document Winter Flying Tips - P-8740-24
Author: FAA Date: 1996
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Operation of Aircraft
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A thorough preflight inspection is important in temperature extremes. It is natural to hurry over the preflight of the aircraft and equipment, particularly when the aircraft is outside in the cold. However, this is the time you should do your best preflight inspection.

Fuel Contamination

Fuel contamination is always a possibility in cold climates. Modern fuel pumping facilities are generally equipped with good filtration equipment, and the oil companies attempt to deliver pure fuel to your aircraft. However, even with the best of fuel and precautions, if your aircraft has been warm and then is parked with half empty tanks in the cold, the possibility of condensation of water in the tanks exists.

Fueling Facilities

Another hazard in cold climates is the danger of fueling from makeshift fueling facilities. Fuel drums or "case gas," even if refinery sealed, can contain rust and somehow contaminants can find their way into the fuel. Cases are on record of fuel being delivered from unidentified containers which was not aviation fuel. As a precaution, we suggest:

  • Where possible, fuel from modern fueling facilities; fill your tanks as soon as possible after landing, and drain fuel sumps to remove any water which may have been introduced.
  • Be sure the fuel being delivered is, in fact, aviation fuel and is the correct grade (octane) for your engine.
  • If you are not using modern fueling facilities, be sure to filter the fuel as it goes into your tanks. NOTE: A funnel with a dirty worn out chamois skin is not a filter, nor will a new, clean chamois filter out water after the chamois is saturated with water. Many filters are available which are more effective than the old chamois. Most imitation chamois will not filter water.
  • Special precautions and filtering are necessary with kerosene and other turbine fuels. Manufacturers can supply full details on handling these fuels.

Fuel Filters and Sumps

Fuel filters and sumps (including each tank sump) should be equipped with quick drains. Sufficient fuel should be drawn off into a transparent container to see if the fuel is free of contaminants. Experienced operators place the aircraft in level flight position, and the fuel is allowed to settle before sumps and filters are drained. All fuel sumps on the aircraft are drained including individual tank sumps. Extra care should be taken during changes in temperature, particularly when it nears the freezing level. Ice may be in the tanks which may turn to water when the temperature rises, and may filter down into the carburetor causing engine failure. During freeze-up in the fall, water can freeze in lines and filters causing stoppage. If fuel does not drain freely from sumps, this would indicate a line or sump is obstructed by sediment or ice. There are approved anti-ice additives that may be used. Where aircraft fuel tanks do not have quick drains installed, it is advisable to drain a substantial amount (1 quart or more) of fuel from the gascolator; then change the selector valve and allow the fuel to drain from the other tank. Advisory Circular (AC) 2O-43C, Aircraft Fuel Control,, (http://www.airweb.faa.gov/Regulatory_and. . .89790036862569C3004BA88B?OpenDocument) contains excellent information on fuel contamination. Paragraphs 10 and 11 are especially pertinent to many light aircraft and include a recommendation for periodic flushing of the carburetor bowl.

Aircraft Preheat

Low temperatures can change the viscosity of engine oil, batteries can lose a high percentage of their effectiveness, instruments can stick, and warning lights, when "pushed to test," can stick in the pushed position. Because of the above, preheat of engines as well as cockpit before starting is considered advisable in low temperatures. Use extreme caution in the preheat process to avoid fire. The following precautions are recommended:

  • Preheat the aircraft by storing in a heated hangar, if possible.
  • Use only heaters that are in good condition and do not fuel the heater while it is running.
  • During the heating process, do not leave the aircraft unattended. Keep a fire extinguisher handy for the attendant.
  • Do not place heat ducting so it will blow hot air directly on parts of the aircraft; such as, upholstery, canvas engine covers, flexible fuel, oil and hydraulic lines or other items that may cause fires.
  • Be sure to follow the manufacturer's procedures.

Engine Starts

In moderately cold weather, engines are sometimes started without preheat. Particular care is recommended during this type of start. Oil is partially congealed and turning the engines is difficult for the starter or by hand.

There is a tendency to overprime, which results in washed-down cylinder walls and possible scouring of the walls. This also results in poor compression and, consequently, harder starting. Sometimes aircraft fires have been started by overprime, when the engine fires and the exhaust system contains raw fuel. Other fires are caused by backfires through the carburetor. It is good practice to have a fireguard handy during these starts.

Another cold start problem that plagues an unpreheated engine is icing over the spark plug electrodes. This happens when an engine only fires a few revolutions and then quits. There has been sufficient combustion to cause some water in the cylinders but insufficient combustion to heat them up. This little bit of water condenses on the spark plug electrodes, freezes to ice, and shorts them out. The only remedy is heat. When no large heat source is available, the plugs are removed from the engine and heated to the point where no more moisture is present.

Engines can quit during prolonged idling because sufficient heat is not produced to keep the plugs from fouling out. Engines which quit under these circumstances are frequently found to have iced-over plugs.

After the engine starts, use of carburetor heat may assist in fuel vaporization until the engine obtains sufficient heat.


Radios should not be tuned prior to starting. Radios should be turned on after the aircraft electrical power is stabilized, be allowed to warm up for a few minutes, and then be tuned to the desired frequency.

Ice, Snow, and Frost

A common winter accident is trying to take off with frost on the wing surface. It is recommended that all frost, snow, and ice be removed before attempting flight. It is best to place the aircraft in a heated hangar. If so, make sure the water does not run into the control surface hinges or crevices and freeze when the aircraft is taken outside. Don't count on the snow blowing off on the takeoff roll. There is often frost adhering to the wing surface below the snow. Alcohol or one of the ice removal compounds can be used. Caution should be used if an aircraft is taken from a heated hangar and allowed to sit outside for an extended length of time when it is snowing. The falling snow may melt on contact with the aircraft surfaces and then refreeze. It may look like freshly fallen snow but it usually will not blow away when the aircraft takes off.

If an aircraft is parked in an area of blowing snow, special attention should be given to openings in the aircraft where snow can enter, freeze solid, and obstruct operation. These openings should be free of snow and ice before flight. Some of these areas are as follows:

  • Pitot tubes
  • Heater intakes
  • Carburetor intakes
  • Anti-torque and elevator controls
  • Main wheel and tail wheel wells, where snow can freeze around elevator and rudder controls.

Fuel Vents

Fuel tank vents should be checked before each flight. A vent plugged by ice or snow can cause engine stoppage, collapse of the tank, and possibly very expensive damage.


Braking action on ice or snow is generally poor. Short turns and quick stops should be avoided. Do not taxi through small snowdrifts or snow banks along the edge of the runway. Often there is solid ice under the snow. If you are operating on skis, avoid sharp turns, as this puts torque on the landing gear in excess of that for which it was designed. Also for ski operation, make sure safety cables and shock cords on the front of the skis are carefully inspected. If these cables or shock cords should break on takeoff, the nose of the ski can fall down to a near vertical position which seriously affects the aerodynamics efficiency of the aircraft and creates a landing hazard. If it is necessary to taxi downwind with either wheels or skis and the wind is strong, get help or don't go. Remember, when you are operating on skis, you have no brakes and no traction in a crosswind. On a hard-packed or icy surface, the aircraft will slide sideways in a crosswind and directional control is minimal particularly during taxiing and landing roll when the control surfaces are ineffective.

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